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20 Ontology and Embryos Chapter 1 Ontology and Embryos On Being an Embryo A s was noted in the introduction, ours is a metaphysical age, one in which there is renewed debate over basic questions of ontology, or being. What makes something a thing? How is one thing distinguished from another? Is existence simply a “brute fact” with no more explanation needed or possible, or are there reasons or causes in virtue of which the fact of existence is a fact? We may add these questions and others to the list, begun in the introduction, regarding the source of meaning and morals. All these questions are metaphysical, to some degree, and all are presently being asked about the human embryo, if only implicitly. Our cultural return to the metaphysical is impeded for at least two reasons. First, it is not clear to all involved in the debate about embryos that the questions we are asking are actually metaphysical. As we noted in the introduction, many consider the question “what is an embryo?” to be entirely a matter of science, despite the inability of scientific observation to address issues beyond the material and efficient causes of the embryo. Green’s gloss, which considers the embryo’s moral status Ontology and Embryos 21 entirely in terms of regard and interest, is a symptom of this lack of recognition, and the glaring flaws in his theory are the consequence. Even those who talk explicitly of ontology (e.g., Susan Oyama, whom we shall encounter later) often have so diluted an understanding of the term as to render impossible any serious engagement of the question. Not all who are involved in the discussion fully recognize its radically metaphysical character. Second, even among those who do appreciate our metaphysical predicament , there remains much confusion on how to think ontologically . Since the work of Immanuel Kant, there has been a persistent suspicion of and general prejudice against metaphysics, with some dismissing it outright and others radically transforming it. Even before Kant, ontological discussions were already becoming muddled. Our culture’s present confusion has a long pedigree. Given this general confusion, the bias of modern science to dismiss metaphysical questions as irrelevant is not surprising. Scientific analysis takes the embryo as a given (effectively side-stepping the question of “what is an embryo?”), and then proceeds to take it apart in order to more precisely understand the embryo’s molecular constitution. In its most recent form, this kind of reductionist analysis is called “Systems Biology,”1 which attempts to define what an embryo is by carefully describing all of the molecules it comprises (the genome, transcriptome, and proteome) and all of the interactions those molecules are capable of exhibiting (the “interactome”). In this view, the embryo can be understood only in terms of its molecular composition; the metaphysical questions of what the embryo is and what makes it the kind of thing it is are seen as simple restatements of the more basic question, “what is the embryo made of?” Indeed, for modern thinkers, it is often difficult to see how these questions differ. Yet the easiest way to appreciate the centrality of the metaphysical question, “what is an embryo?” for both scientists and for us is to consider how a scientist decides what entities to include in a Sys1 . A helpful discussion of the general approach known as Systems Biology can be found on the National Institutes of Health website: Christopher Wanjek, “An Intellectual Resource for Integrative Biology,” More will be said about Systems Biology in subsequent chapters. 22 Ontology and Embryos tems Biology analysis. Without some prior judgment regarding what an embryo actually is, there is no way to even begin this analysis. Are we to merely collect random chunks of matter (teaspoons, dandelions, bacteria , skin cells), then minutely analyze their properties and hope that general classes fall out of this analysis—including a class we will somehow identify as “an embryo”? Clearly, this is not how science proceeds. Yet the unexamined nature of the metaphysical assumptions scientists regularly make regarding the embryo (i.e., that an embryo actually is an identifiable kind of entity with specific, observable characteristics), hinders intelligent dialogue between scientists and philosophers on this topic. Scientists will generally dismiss any attempt to address metaphysical questions as “personal opinion” or “religious doctrine,” completely ignoring the fact that their own scientific analysis is entirely dependent on a poorly articulated and woefully...


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